The Rays are good and the American League is bad.
That was going to benefit Tampa Bay from the outset. Then the Rays constructed one of their best starts ever while the Yankees and Red Sox struggled.
Add it up and you have a team with probably a 75 percent chance to make the playoffs — perhaps better — while hitting Ji-Man Choi third in most games and Brandon Lowe fourth. Anonymity should not be confused with quality.
The Rays thrive at run prevention and this season offensively were on pace for the best on-base and slugging percentages in their history. Yes, it is a small sample size. But after a surprising 90 wins last year, Tampa Bay has used the first three weeks to validate 2018. At 14-6, the Rays began Saturday with the majors’ best record, and their 4 ¹/₂-game lead was equal to the distance between first and second in the other five divisions combined.
“We have a really good team,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said by phone. “We have a really hungry team that is young and is playing with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. They demonstrated last year they were very capable of competing with and beating some of the best teams in the league. We want to continue to prove that is not a fluke. Our record over the last calendar year is pretty good. If you look at that amount of time, there is stuff within it that is legitimate.”
The Rays opened last season at 4-13. From then through Friday they were 100-65 — trailing just the Astros (105-58), Yankees (101-64) and Red Sox (101-65) for the best record in that timeframe. They got there despite continuing to trade established players and deploying a pitching strategy that has evolved from generally despised to roundly imitated.
The 2017 Rays went 80-82. They had four players with more than 16 homers, and traded three (Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson and Evan Longoria) and let the other (Logan Morrison) leave in free agency — and remember Longoria is the best player in franchise history and was the face of the team. They had two starters with double-digit victories and a winning record and traded Jake Odorizzi while Alex Cobb left in free agency. Five primary relievers (Brad Boxberger, Steve Cishek, Danny Farquhar, Tommy Hunter and Chase Whitley) also did not return.
Tampa’s free-agent buys were Carlos Gomez for $4 million and retaining Sergio Romo for $2.5 million.
The result: The Rays were one of four teams cited by the Players Association for not properly investing their revenue-sharing dollars. Then they lost three of their best starting pitcher prospects (Anthony Banda, Jose DeLeon and Brent Honeywell) to Tommy John surgery. Then they opened 4-13. Then, by the first week of August, they had traded their closer (Alex Colome), catcher (Wilson Ramos), two starters (Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi) and two oft-used infielders (Adeiny Hechavarria and Brad Miller). None of the trades were for established players.
Yet, the Rays won 90 games in a division in which the Red Sox won 108 and the Yankees 100. Then they opened 2019 winning 14 of 20.
“What I can see so far, the pitching is real, the back of the bullpen is for real and a few of the openers are for real,” said a scout who covers the Rays. “I’m not convinced the offense will be what it has been out of the gate. But right now they are freewheeling it and swinging it good, and with the way they pitch, how many runs do they need to score anyway?”
The Rays are obsessed with pitching. They recognize they are a franchise that cannot shop in every aisle like the Red Sox and Yankees. So they fixate on obtaining and developing as much pitching as possible and trying hard to support it with high-end defense even if it hurts the offense. They also are known, for example, as a team with tougher standards for pitchers to progress in the minors than most organizations, so that once promoted to the majors the pitcher will be closer to a finished product.
Last year with Cobb and Odorizzi gone, Archer not far behind and the three young starters hurt, the Rays routinely used relievers in short stints to start — the opener. They had a lot of good pitchers, but not a lot of good starters. So rather than follow convention, they deployed their assets the best way to try to win — notably a strong arm to deal with the top of the lineup one time and, thus, not exposing the pitcher who would cover innings to having to go through the top of the lineup more than twice and perhaps only once.
This annoyed purists. There were a lot of cries that it was a fad, that this strategy would lead to injury and ultimately failure. Instead, it led to imitation.
And, let’s face it, the franchise’s greatest problem (lack of attendance/coverage) helped here. It is easier to defy orthodoxy in the Tampa Bay market than, say, New York or Boston — where the blowback would be so much louder and harder to withstand if it didn’t instantly work.
Through all the pitching machinations, Blake Snell excelled as a starter and won the Cy Young, Tyler Glasnow was added in the Archer trade (and has outperformed Archer) and then the Rays splurged, for them, in the offseason on a two-year, $30 million pact for Charlie Morton. They still were using the opener this year in two rotation spots — and Snell is now on the injured list with a fractured toe. But the quality depth remains — Tampa had permitted the third fewest runs through 20 games by an AL in the past 30 years.
Ideally, when Ryne Stanek opens, for example, the Rays are utilizing a pitcher with closer stuff with two more (Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado) actually finishing games. That leaves a lot fewer outs in the middle for opponents to score.
It is Tampa’s ability to score that has been surprising. The Rays were top four in the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and their .793 OPS would be the best in their history. Lowe and Austin Meadows, who also came for Archer, has led the way, but the Rays’ ability to find gems in smaller deals (Choi, Yandy Diaz, Tommy Pham) also has benefitted them. Those who question Tampa’s strong start point to the sustainability of the offense.
Also, they had an easy early schedule. The Rays got the Astros to open the season, with Houston missing Carlos Correa, then followed with series against five teams that began the weekend a combined 38-59. But the Yankees began the season with a soft schedule and did not capitalize. And remember, this isn’t, say, 2012-15 when every AL East team won the division except Tampa. The Blue Jays and Orioles are rebuilding, and perhaps the Yankees and, especially, the Red Sox are not as good as generally forecast.
And the AL as a whole is weak and the Rays can upgrade as the season progresses with one of the best farm systems in the sport. Their litmus test is May 10 through the All-Star break when, among other things, they have 13 games against the Yankees and a New York-to-Oakland-to-Minnesota road trip that comes within a hellacious 32 games in 33 days to close the first half.
If Tampa survives that, it will have way more than a Ray of hope to actually win the AL East this year.